Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2017)

magpie murders

After reading several “must- read summer books” lists that included this murder mystery by Anthony Horowitz, I picked up a copy at the library excited to read. Horowitz’s YA books are a staple in my house and I had liked his Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk. However, this book was a vague disappointment and felt throughout that the author was making only a partial effort to tell a story that was engaging.

The premise of the book was quite clever. The first half of the book is a 1950’s cozy mystery — the full text of Magpie Murders, the final book of a fictional mystery series featuring PI Atticus Pund is included, minus its final “whodunit” chapter — once the Atticus Pund mystery has ended, a second modern story begins.

In the second half, we return to present-day London where Susan Ryeland is reading the Atticus Pund book along with us. Our new protagonist is the book editor to a wildly popular author of the Pund books, named Alan Conway. Susan is shocked to find the final chapter of the Magpie Murders is missing, but even more shocked when she learns that Alan Conway has died.

So begins the second mystery story in the book: Susan must work to determine whether or not the author had finished the book; if so, where is the missing chapter? As she delves deeper, it becomes clear that Conway’s death is very suspicious and soon a whole cast of characters emerge who may have wanted the author dead… possibly because the Magpie Murders exposes details of a real murder.

The author did a great job in part one of the book, creating a wonderful character in Atticus Pund and a great Agatha Christie-esque mystery with Magpie Murders. However, part two falls flat with the slightly unlikable Susan Ryeland and a new mystery that should be compelling but simply is not. While the overall effect is passable, it would have been a much stronger book with a more energetic second half.

In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear (2017)

Note: Other books in this series, and stand alone books by Winspear, can be found using the tag “Winspear” on the right hand side of this site’s main page. This post may contain spoilers for earlier books in this series.

in this grave hour

In This Grave Hour, the thirteenth installment of the fantastic Maisie Dobbs Series, opens on a somber note on September 3, 1939 at the very moment that the British government declared war on Germany and entered World War II. On that same morning, Maisie Dobbs — a “psychologist and investigator” in London — is assigned a new case: find a murderer who is targeting Belgian men who came to England as refugees during the first World War.

After years of personal turmoil, including losing her husband and baby, and working as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, the summer of 1939 finds Maisie Dobbs returned to London and Kent: her city-based investigative business thriving and her weekend life in the country with her father and in-laws stable and contented. However, the declaration of war changes everything immediately: children removed from their city homes and relocated to the live with strangers country; London bracing for bombings; and everywhere young men enlisting, terrifying their parents who still keenly remember their loses in WWI.

Against that back-drop, Maisie follows the trail of a handful of WWI Belgian refugees who came to England as orphaned boys and stayed to build a life after Armistice, men who are now turning up dead, executed one-by-one. Together with her two assistants, the local police, a Secret Service agent, and a Belgian diplomat; Maisie begins to uncover the connection between the then boys, now men, and their murderer and the reasons for these apparently long-delayed executions.

Told in Winspear’s signature style — calm, methodical, precise, and rich with historical details — In This Grave Hour is yet another mesmerizing investigation unfolds and more hints about the future in store for Maisie Dobbs are revealed. Wonderful!

Echoes In Death JD Robb (2017)

For an introduction to the In Death series, see this post https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/10/18/in-death/

For a review of the In Death book that proceeded Echoes in Death in the series, view this post https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2016/10/14/apprentice-in-death-by-jd-robb-2016/

echoes in death cover

Echoes in Death, the 44th book in JD Robb’s prolific futuristic, science-fiction murder mystery series, opens with Lt. Eve Dallas and her husband, Roarke, discovering a naked and battered woman wandering the frozen New York City streets. After racing her to the hospital they learn that she is the young wife of a prominent surgeon. Once the hospital staff confirm her identity and concur that the young woman has been the victim of a brutal physical and sexual attack; Dallas and her partner, Peabody, arrive at her home to find her husband has been murdered, presumably by the same attacker as his wife.

On the surface the attacks appear to be a rape/murder perpetrated in the course of a home invasion. All evidence points to that conclusion: the home of a wealthy couple invaded, the couple attacked, and the attacker had left only after stealing artwork, cash, and jewelry. As the wife begins to regain her memories of the evening, and Dallas and Peabody interview friends of the couple, information that suggests that the husband abused his wife (and possibly a previous wife) comes to light and the cops have to work out whether she killed in self-defense or if someone else was involved in an elaborate escape plan.

Two fellow NYPD detectives approach Dallas and Peabody with evidence that links two of their cold cases with her murder investigation and all four detectives agree that the three cases are similar enough that the attacker most likely is a serial rapist who has escalated into murder.

Tracing the intricate relationships between the three cases, the team begin to uncover a pattern: the murderer is targeting prominent, wealthy couples in which the wife is extraordinarily beautiful. Dr. Mira, the department psychiatrist and recurrent character in the series, creates a chilling profile that suggests the killer is attacking “surrogates” who reminds him of someone he has long known and long wanted to harm.

Although this series can be formulaic and repetitive, this book felt reinvigorated and the plot and details kept it feeling fresh and fast paced. A dark series, too dark for those sensitive to graphic murder mysteries, but one that has fought to remain vital after forty+ books.

An Unsuitable Job for A Woman by P.D. James (1977)

” ‘I should have thought that the job was –‘ Cordelia finished the sentence for him. ‘An unsuitable job for a woman?’ ‘ Not at all. Entirely suitable for a woman I should have thought, requiring infinite curiosity, infinite pains and a penchant for interfering.’ ” (100)

 

 

cambridge-uni

Cambridge University, England.

I am a long-time fan of P.D. James mystery fiction (or, as she calls them, her “crime novels”) but up until this week, I have read only books within the Adam Dalgliesh series. While those are superb novels and every single one is well-worth a read, I found this novel (part of the “Cordelia Gray series,” of which there are only two books) to be refreshingly light and more energetic while still containing the signature intelligence and wit of James.  No doubt, the youthful air of the novels comes from the fact that their heroine is a young London woman running her own private investigation firm. Compared to her much more famous counterpart, Cordelia Gray has no weighty history to contend with nor any bothersome police procedures to adhere to. As a result, An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, presents us with a thrilling, fast-paced novel without the density of James’ other works.

Our short-lived heroine, Cordelia Gray, was a child raised in the British foster-care system who was forced to abandon her education during her high-school years, and as a result found finding work in 1970’s London rather challenging. A temporary typing gig turns into an apprenticeship with a shady PI who, upon his untimely death, leaves the business to Cordelia to run. Tough and scrappy after years of upheaval and poverty, Cordelia may be inexperienced in her new career, but her street-smarts and work-ethic make up for some of what she has yet to learn.

“Despite its look of deceptive youth it could be a secret, uncommunicative face. Cordelia had early learnt stoicism. All her foster parents, kindly and well-meaning in their different ways, had demanded one thing of her — that she should be happy. She had quickly learned that to show unhappiness was to risk the loss of love. Compared with this early discipline of concealment, all subsequent deceits had been easy.” (21)

Her first case comes just days after she inherits the struggling detective agency: a wealthy scientist of some distinction wants to hire Cordelia to investigate the reasons behind his adult son’s suicide. Cordelia, her client reasons, will more naturally fit in as she makes inquiries among his sons colleagues and classmates at Cambridge University. Soon Cordelia finds herself taking temporary (and free) lodgings in the very cottage where Mark Callendar took his life and mixing with the students and staff at the university.

Cordelia is determined to prove herself to her client, and more importantly to herself, that despite her age, gender, and lack of formal education, she can not only investigate the circumstances of his son’s death, but also hold her own among the elite academics and wealthy residents of the town and college. Indeed Cordelia soon finds her stoicism and keen observation skills allow her to mix with her peers, while insulating herself from their often causal cruelty and their dismissiveness of her based on her lack of social and academic standing.

Readers find Cordelia in 1970’s Cambridge, a time of loosening social mores and outright questioning of all authority figures. The educational formality that had reigned in Cambridge for hundreds of years was yielding to freer ideas about sex, drugs, religion, philosophy all while the students themselves were living without the supervision of previous generations.

“Cordelia was intrigued by the overt sexuality, she had thought intellectuals breathed too rarified air to be much interested in the flesh. Obviously this was a misapprehension. … She found herself intimidated by the underlying ruthlessness and the half-understood conventions of these tribal matings.” (98)

By befriending those who had been close to Mark, at wild parties and during punting trips down the river Cam, Cordelia begins to get a sense of the quiet, bookish young man who had undergone a recent revolution in his worldviews and had begun to questioned his place among the wealthy elite. Clue by clue, Cordelia retraces Mark’s steps to find just what led to this transformation and whether or not Mark learned something during his period of discovery led — not to his suicide — but to his murder.

A short, fun read for those who love a cozy PI mystery, told by a wonderful story-teller. If only PD James had found Cordelia interesting enough to fill more books!

Turbo Twenty-Three by Janet Evanovich (2016)

Book #23 in the Stephanie Plum series (Book #22 reviewed here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-3x )

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Everyone’s favorite bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum, is back for yet another ridiculous, hilarious, wholly improbable but none-the-less enjoyable caper. She has brought along her entire rag-tag team of companions — including but not limited to: Lulu, Connie, Grandma Mazur, Randy Briggs, Joe Morelli (yum!), and Ranger (yum! yum!) — along as she tries to round up skips and as she goes undercover in order to solve a string of murders.

In this book, Stephanie is helping Ranger piece together a bizarre series of crimes plaguing a local ice cream factory and its employees, including two grisly murders. Going under cover on the factory line, on the loading dock, and even as a clown in the ice cream truck; Stephanie does her best to solve the mystery and (as always) manages to do so in a wild, round-a-bout way.

I have to admit that I whole-heartedly enjoy this series and, even after twenty-three books, I still am happy to send a rainy evening reading about Stephanie and her outrageous exploits. While other series I have been devoted to have fizzled (see my latest review of JD Robb’s latest Eve Dallas book http://wp.me/p6N6mT-19D ) this one remains strong. The reason for this, I believe, that it is Evanovich’s humor and her commitment to absolutely ludicrous story-lines that make no attempt to be realistic. It does not hurt that Stephanie is still, after all these years, engaged in steamy relationships with both Morelli and Ranger.

A series that is well-worth reading, if just for a quick, funny break from the craziness of the holidays. Enjoy!

Apprentice in Death by JD Robb (2016)

In Death series, Book #43

Lt. Eve Dallas and her team of cops are back for their forty-third case in Apprentice in Death, this time working to stop a serial killer sniper who shoots the — seemingly random — victims from miles away. Using a combination of police work and a whole lot of hi-tech software and gear, Eve Dallas and her cohort quickly find a link between some of the victims and, from there, begin to narrow in on two possible suspects. Complicating the search, however, is the apparent involvement of a teenager in the crimes. The cops must question whether or not such a young person could be a willing participant in so many killings…or worse, be the primary perpetrator.

This novel, like the forty-two that proceed it in the In Death series, blends futuristic science fiction elements with those of the classic police procedural. Dallas and her team collect evidence at a break-neck pace and in record time have a suspect and a motive. All that is left is for the team to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Although I am a fan of Nora Roberts and JD Robb books, I cannot help but feel that this series is growing just a tiny bit stale. While the cases the author has dreamed up continue to be thought-provoking and exciting, the formulaic way in which the cases are pursued and solved seem very, very familiar. Just as in all her  previous cases, Dallas is able to solve the case and bring it to a close in record time and with little effort. While I understand that part of the charm of book series is their repetitive nature, I cannot help but wish that Robb would bring in some fresh characters, a new locale, or even a harder case for the team to crack.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson (2008)

Jackson Brodie PI Series #3. Reviews of books #1 and #2 can be found here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-cS and here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-15Z

“What he had felt for most of his life was that he was living on in the aftermath of a disaster, in the endless postscript of time that was his life following the murder of his sister and the suicide of his brother. He had drawn those terrible feelings inside himself, nourished them in solitary confinement until they formed the hard, black nugget of coal at the heart of his soul, but now the disaster was external, the wreckage was tangible, it was outside the room he was sleeping in.”

“You’re going the wrong way,” a causal comment from a woman on the roadside made to Jackson Brodie has a profound, prophetic effect on the man and his life in the days and weeks that follow. As if the stranger had cast a spell on him, Jackson boards a train that speeds him not toward his London home and his new life there, but toward Edinburgh, the city he had fled three years prior after becoming involved in a series criminal investigations. Upon entering the Edinburgh train station, the train crashes, killing hundreds and leaving Brodie with little memory of his recent past.

The train crash has a profound effect not only on Brodie, but on all of the characters in the book, scattering them as if they are bowling pins and tearing apart their stories and completely re-threading them, tying them to one another in ways none of them could have predicted.

There is Louise Monroe, the gritty police Detective whom Brodie met briefly during his stay three years earlier: drawn into the story as a first responder to the crash (who does not see Brodie’s dramatic rescue by a young girl) and later when a just-released, convicted murderer of a local woman’s family goes missing in the crash and again even later when Brodie’s young rescuer, a teen named Reggie, calls Louise to report that her boss is missing. Reggie’s boss, it turns out, is the very woman — named Joanna Hunter — that Louise fears the missing murderer has set out to find.

As if that does not complicate the plot enough, the story of young Reggie is also deeply tied to the crash. Recently orphaned by both her mother and her mentor, her closet ties are to her boss, to whom she feels a deep connection. A witness of the train disaster, Reggie is one of the first to arrive at the site and it is her CPR skills that save Brodie. When Detective Louise Monroe refuses to look into Joanna Hunter’s disappearance, Reggie tracks down a confused and severely injured Brodie as asks, in repayment for her CPR ministrations, Brodie to help her find Joanna.

As the story unfolds, the pieces of several cases begin to tie all of the characters into tighter and tighter relation with one another. Soon the murder of Joanna’s family, her disappearance, the missing murderer, the train crash, and the fates of Brodie, Reggie, Louise, and Joanna become one intertwined story.

Filled with Atkinson’s trademark deep character developments and with her teasing manner of leaving readers only small bread crumbs, one at a time, about the mystery and about the characters in it. Those elements combine with her poetic prose to create an ending that will keep you guessing until the final pages.